Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ipod = brunton?

So, I'm pretty late to this discussion about whether we can replace our low-tech gear with high-tech toys.

In environmental consulting, most fieldwork is low-tech. That's not necessarily true for all field people or all geologists; I'm just going on my experience here. With that caveat out of the way...

I could carry around a tablet PC for notes, or I could use an ipod app instead of a physical compass. I don't, and most consultants I know don't either, for a couple of reasons:

1. Equipment fragility. If it's below freezing or above 90, or if the humidity's high, a lot of electronic gizmos have problems. I just dropped my rugged cell phone a few minutes before starting to write this post, and the battery popped out (still works!). The screen has a few dings from being dropped on hard surfaces, and it's only a matter of time before I drop it in water. Finally, if you're in a particularly nasty place, you may need your electronic equipment to be intrinsically safe.

2. Legal documentation. Most regulators and lawyers like to see one field original, in ink. Yeah, you can gin up an electronic signature for your files, but most authorities are most comfortable with a stack of paperwork that can be stamped and filed and tucked away.

3. Incompatibility. PDFs are the gold standard right now for transmitting reports, so this is going away. But you still have relic filing/storage issues. Floppies? (even real floppies)...zip drives? Various drawing programs that have been rendered obsolete? A lot of scientific data retain value for decades. It's nice to put stuff on a network (and how good is your backup, anyway?), but nicer still to retain originals for posterity.

Monday, June 29, 2009


I got recently involved in a whole long discussion about using words like “sweetie” or “hon” in a business setting. A fair number of people thought that folks who didn’t like/complained about being called “sweetie” were obnoxious complainers, elitist, or just plain unpleasant.

I don’t mind being called by some form of endearment in a casual setting. At a restaurant? Fine. It's even sort of charming if it’s a diner sort of place and the waitress is old enough to be my mother.

It’s another thing altogether when I’m wrapping up a long phone call about a bunch of technical details with a subcontractor. I’m the client. You know my name. Cooing “bye, bye, sweetie” right at the end is completely unprofessional.

A lot of people will think I’m being overly sensitive. But I’m guessing those same people haven’t had to fight to be taken seriously with every new business interaction.

Friday, June 26, 2009

tick contamination

You know what sucks? Waking up after a nice, restful night to find a tick climbing up the wall right over my head. It makes me wonder what else was crawling around in my hair last night.

I've left ticks in hotel rooms all over the place. Usually, though, I catch them and/or get rid of them in the shower if they don't get left behind in my clothing. If they're on my clothing, I'll find them crawling around the floor.

I did some work in a resort area, and since I was working in the off-season, I was able to stay in a fancy hotel. I was somewhat chagrined when I took my stuff off, took a shower, and came back to find several ticks crawling through the carpet. Over the month of fieldwork, I'm afraid that I utterly contaminated the hotel - not intentionally, but the damn things get everywhere. Especially the little tiny ones that are the Lyme's disease carriers.

I'll have to keep an eye out for flu-like symptoms and joint pain...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

long-ass day

I had one of those days today...long day, lots of stress, and then I got stuck in traffic and sat for an hour. I'm sitting on the couch with a big glass of wine and the remains of dinner (takeout - I wasn't feeling up to cooking), watching Discover. Also, I have poison ivy again, and the itch is driving me crazy. The heat isn't helping that bit.

It's really too bad that I have a bunch of non-work related stuff to do. Maybe I'll go to bed early and worry about that tomorrow.

I noticed that blogosphere traffic has slowed down...it must be vacation time for everyone. I know I'm having a hard time being motivated right now.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

field fun

I complain about fieldwork a lot, but there are some viscerally satisfying things I get to do. Three of my favorites:

1. Thwacking my way through a big thicket of dried-out reeds. Nothing makes you feel like an intrepid explorer like fighting your way through brush that's way over your head and that offers just enough resistance to make it feel like an accomplishment.

2. Compositing sediment samples. Sticking your (gloved) hands into a big bowl of goo and mushing it around, ostensibly to pick out the twigs and rocks, brings out the toddler in everyone.

3. Prying silt or fine sand off augers. This is similar to #2, but with stiffer material that peels off like modelling clay.

When I engage in these activities, a little part of me still says, "whee! I'm getting paid for this!"

Monday, June 22, 2009

relative stress

I was the only consultant on a drilling site, and I was doing my usual running around – fielding phone calls from various contractors and my boss (“no, it would not be a good idea to have all the regulators watch the drilling in the one location that’s a mud bog”) while trying to sample soil and keep an eye on the driller. Then the facility rep came by with all sorts of logistical questions about the next phase of work.

The driller had been watching as I got progressively more frazzled. He said, “You shouldn’t get so stressed out about that stuff. It’ll happen or not.”

I said, “Easy enough for you to say – you just have to run the rig.”

He said, “Run the rig? If something breaks, it’s up to me to fix it. And everything comes to a screeching halt until then.”

Hmmm…he may have been on to something…

Friday, June 19, 2009

more porta follies

Earlier, I discussed gender parity in porta potties. Regardless of how you break out the facilities, you need to remember one cardinal rule: the sign on the door says “1 facility per 10 people per 40 hours”.

The porta-potty cleaner wants to stick to a weekly schedule, and frankly, may show up a couple days late. If you’re working 50 or 60 or more hours on site, you have to adjust your numbers so that you don’t run over. Also, people tend to avoid using the porta-potty except to pee, but if you’re working 10-12 hours (or more) and you’re stuck eating fast food, that porta-potty is going to get used a lot more.

Porta-potties are miserable any time of year - frigid in the winter, bug infested any other time. And regardless of how fastidious the crew is, the porta-potty is going to get disgusting. Luckily, porta potties are dirt cheap to rent, especially compared to your other field supply/rental costs. So please, please, be generous with the porta-potties. It’s a simple cost that improves morale exponentially.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

al desco?

So FSP posted recently here and here about eating "al desco". She seemed to confuse the issue of eating at your desk with the idea of working through lunch.

Honestly, when I'm in the office, I almost always eat lunch at my desk. But it doesn't have anything to do with work - that's when I surf the internet. Hell, ever since I first got internet at home, I've eaten breakfast every morning in front of a computer. Yes, I do need to shake crumbs out of my keyboards on a regular basis.

I find it almost impossible to eat while doing real work in the office. Even if I'm on the phone, I'm shuffling papers, scanning documents, or taking notes. In the field, it's a little easier to grab a bite while you wait for readings to stabilize or for the driller to fix whatever just broke.

Monday, June 15, 2009

landfill drilling

I enjoy drilling in landfills because it allows me to be an amateur archaeologist. Date this layer by the newspaper fragments that come up in the split spoon! Name that engine part/common household appliance!

The problem, though, is the methane that builds up. If you’re doing environmental work, you may be working on old landfills that don’t have vents to release methane. And even modern landfills don’t necessarily have perfect venting systems.

The instrument you tend to use on a landfill to detect methane and other unpleasant organic compounds is a flame ionization detector (FID). Here’s the thing to remember: the FID needs a certain oxygen level to work. Otherwise, the flame goes out.

If you’re working on a landfill and you get busy collecting samples and whatnot, you may not have your eyes on the FID at all times to see if the gas concentrations are going up. If the FID flame goes out, do not stand around trying to re-start it, muttering about stupid finicky instruments, while your driller blithely continues. Chances are, if the flame goes out at a landfill, you’ve got too much methane. You need to back off. Otherwise, you end up with the following phone call:

Geologist: “I can’t get this damn FID to work. Do you have a replacement?”

Team Leader: “do you mean that the flame keeps going out? Because if it is, you need to-“

Geologist: “SHIT! We’ve started a brush fire!”

…did I mention that methane burns with an invisible flame? Not good.

Friday, June 12, 2009


I was at a training session recently, and the discussion turned to bathroom facilities.

Various people with some knowledge of OSHA regulations insisted that you had to have two bathroom facilities for men and women. I said, “sounds good – that means I can insist the project manager pony up for two porta-potties!”

But what they meant was that you had to have separate facilities for men and women. I guess you’re supposed to write “men” on one and “women” on the other and enforce a rigorous separation.

The fact is, men and women share a bathroom all the time. They’re called unisex bathrooms. It’s not like you’re actually in the bathroom at the same time as the guys, since they’ve got only one toilet and a locking door.

Also, porta potties are different from regular bathrooms in that they have a limited lifespan. If you have one woman using one porta potty and thirty men using another (a gender ratio I have come across on certain large field projects), the mens’ porta potties will fill up exponentially faster. And no matter how much you write “men” or “ladies” on the door, once you have, um, filled porta potties, people are going to start using the one that isn’t disgusting.

I haven’t seen any field sites where the porta potties are kept separated by gender. Is this actually done?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

internet issues

I had more internet issues this week. But I should clarify:

Sometimes I am indeed unable to access the internet at all. Usually this is when I'm in the field or otherwise travelling. But most times I don't have internet, it's because my home internet has gone on the fritz. Like this week. I rarely lose office internet (much less often than at grad school, which is sort of sad).

I would never add new posts, let alone view blogspot at all, from a work computer. Why not? Most companies have strict personal-use policies, at least on paper. Generally speaking, I feel ok doing some non-controversial web surfing (a mainstream media news site), but I'm not going to do anything "controversial" on a company computer. Also, unless you're working in an academic setting, you have no expectation of privacy. The last thing I want to do is leave little cookie crumbs all over the web, including those leading to this blog.

Monday, June 8, 2009

following directions

So the June scientiae carnival is up (see here and here) and I was all bummed that my entry wasn't posted. After some investigation, I realized I sent an e-mail announcing my post to the wrong address (scientiae at blabity blah instead of scientiaecarnival at blabity blah). I didn't catch it because the e-mail did go through.

This is what happens when you work 70 hours and then you try and follow directions.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

owing the reader

Every once in a while, a commenter on a science blog will charge that the blogger is not “serious” enough; not rigorous enough in their analysis.

I don’t have any pretensions of being some sort geological/scientific expert blogger. In this venue, I’ve prioritized having something written every workday. If I were to write long, cogent, exquisitely well-supported posts, they wouldn’t be coming in daily, that’s for sure. I work up to 70 hours/week (not including commuting time) and sometimes I get migraines, and I do have a life outside of work and blogging.

I was blog-hopping the other day, and I came across this post. Neil Gaiman (he has a terrific, time-wasting blog, incidentally) was responding to a reader’s question about George R. R. Martin, who is clearly struggling with the direction of his big series. Gaiman says, “George R.R. Martin is not your bitch.”

Bloggers (and novelists) do not have a financial contract with the reader. Most bloggers are not getting any money whatsoever for what they put out there. I’m not expecting a book deal… you’ll just have to take me the way I am.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

the backpack

So, how many "gear" posts can I write? Apparently, a lot.

This post discusses field backpack requirements. I agree with most of them (padded back, separate water holder, clips and loops for holding awkward stuff like hammers, wallet/key compartment), but I should be honest here.

I do not have a fancy backpack. I have a backpack that I got around 10 years ago to replace the pack I got in high school. It does have a couple of separate compartments, but it doesn't have all of the modern amenities. Also, the straps have been closed in car doors a few too many times and the weight-distributing belt clips are broken.

The main compartment of my backpack collects most of the miscellaneous stuff, so the bottom is sort of... dangerous at this point. It's a mess of crumbs from lunches that leaked, semi-pulverized asprin from a big bottle that opened at some point, loose change, feminine products that are too grungy to be used except in case of dire emergency, a dead stopwatch, a mostly dead calculator, and who knows what else.

As with a lot of field gear, a new backpack would be nice, but it's also the sort of thing that I don't really think about until I'm out in the field and I have to deal with it. I don't think, "oh, I'll go backpack shopping this weekend!" and so it never gets done. I would put backpack replacement higher on my to-do list if it stopped working for me, i.e. a strap or a zipper broke. But I got it from LLBean and the damn thing's invincible.

I do, however, have a certain present-giving holiday coming up... anybody have particular brands/models of backpacks they'd recommend?

Monday, June 1, 2009

more migraines

I seem to have suffered more than my usual share of migraines recently (this is post-migraine-induced nap). I'm still working on the triggers...as I mentioned in an old post, the big trigger for me is bright light/eyestrain. It's usually compounded by dehydration or poor eating habits; for example, eating donuts for breakfast.

A friend of mine in grad school got similar migraines, and she thought that pressure changes had a lot to do with it. I realized that I did indeed tend to get migraines when a warm front moves through.

I'm relatively lucky because I can treat my migraines with simple OTC stuff, as long as I take it as soon as I start to feel draggy/headachy. But my mother, who I've inherited my migraines from, insists that they get steadily worse over time. Not something I'm looking forward to.